Notwithstanding its sparkling show in the 2014 Lok Sabha and subsequent local body elections in Assam and desertions from the Congress, the forthcoming assembly polls could turn out to be a tough task for the BJP, particularly in the wake of the ruling Congress’ call for a “maha (grand) understanding” against the saffron outfit.
With the polls slated to be held early next year, the Congress has even tried to reach out to arch rivals like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Left, as it strives to fight off anti-incumbency in a state it has been ruling for the past 15 years.
The BJP picked up a much improved seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam last year, establishing lead in a majority of the assembly segments, and then followed it up with some good performances in the subsequent panchayat and local body polls in the state.
The party, which won only five assembly seats in 2011, got another shot in the arm when it roped in former heavyweight minister and Congress strongman-turned-dissident Himanta Biswa Sarma in August.
Within months, ten Congress legislators, all Biswa Sarma loyalists, also switched allegiance and joined the BJP.
As the stage seemed set for the BJP to give a big push to its ambitious “Mission 84” – aiming to win 84 or two-thirds of the seats in the 126-member Assam assembly – came the Bihar poll drubbing.
With arch-foes Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United and Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal coming together in a “grand alliance” that also included the Congress, the BJP-led formation was decimated in Bihar.
The Bihar results boosted the Congress’ morale in Assam, with its leaders now scouting for allies.
The BJP has also been forced to change its electoral tactics and bring back Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs Sarbananda Sonowal as state unit chief.
The response to Chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s appeal for a novel “maha understanding” could hold the key.
“What I am saying is not an alliance. All the parties will campaign for their own party but for the greater interest of Assam and considering the communal nature of the BJP, we must tell voters not to vote for the BJP. The voters should be told to vote for any party but not for the BJP,” said Gogoi.
However, sources indicate that the Congress has almost finalised an understanding with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume trader Moulana Badaruddin Ajmal, which has a strong support base among the Bengali-speaking Muslims in lower Assam districts.
Ajmal had already met Gogoi thrice in the last two months and there seems to be a clear understanding that the two parties might, depending on their seat tally, go for a post-poll alliance to form the next government in Dispur.
Apart from the three principal political forces – BJP, Congress and the AIUDF – parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) are also likely to play an important role in the forthcoming polls.
The AGP, on its part, has turned down Gogoi’s suggestion of a “maha understanding” and is working on cobbling together an anti-BJP and anti-Congress front to face the electorate. Senior AGP leader and former Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta said his outfit will maintain equi-distance from the Congress and the BJP.
The BPF, which had severed its ties with the Congress last year, has made it clear that it would extend its support to whichever party forms the government in Dispur for the sake of development of the Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD).
Faced with a strong challenge, The BJP is trying to cash in on two issues – granting scheduled tribe (ST) status to six communities and the peace parleys with the pro-talk faction of the Ulfa leaders, which have almost reached the final stage.
The BJP-led NDA government at the centre has already stated that the six communities – Koch-Rajbongshi, Moran, Muttock, Sootea, Tai Ahom and the tea tribes communities – that are currently in the other backward classes (OBC) category, will be given ST status.
“The Congress has been fooling the people of Assam. It is the NDA government, who after assuming power in New Delhi, fast-tracked the issue of granting ST status to the six communities,” Assam BJP spokesman Rupam Goswami said.
He said the people of Assam and different organisations had for long been demanding extradition of Ulfa general secretary Anup Chetia from Bangladesh for success of the ongoing peace process with the government of India.
“During Congress rule, nothing was done. But within one year of assuming power, the NDA government signed an extradition treaty with Bangladesh and brought back Chetia to Assam and he has consented to sit for the talks,” said Goswami.
Still, at the bottom line, it’s a race that could go either way.